Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What is poetry? - singing along with Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

“Spanish poetry of the late seventeenth  century and of the eighteenth is not very interesting, and that of the early nineteenth contains nothing that was not done better  in France, in Britain, or in Italy,” or so say J. M. Cohen in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse (1988, p. xxxvi), and thus he skips from almost two hundred years from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (“the last considerable poet of the Spanish Golden Age”) to Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (“the greatest of Spain’s poets of the 19th century”).  What is the greatest etc. like?

What is poetry? You ask
as you fix your blue eyes on mine.
What is poetry!  And it’s you who ask me?
Poetry… it is you. 

Hmm.  Yuck!  What goo.  This is Michael Smith, not Cohen, in Collected Poems (Rimas) (Shearsman, 2007, p. 65).  The English is nothing, but the Spanish is something:

¿Qué es poésia?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¡Qué es poésia!  ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poésia… eres tú.

The sentiment is still trivial, but there is poetry here, particularly in the rhythm and the repeated vowel sounds.  That musical second line, for example, with its “i u i u i u,” resonating with the later repeated “tú.”  The rhymes and near-rhymes are unusual for Bécquer, but the mastery of assonance is not.

Although this poem does not seem to do all that much, it contains almost all of Bécquer’s subject matter.  He wrote love poems, expectant, joyous, anguished, and despondent, most of which also seem to be about poetry as much a woman.  He died young, having written poems for about a decade and leaving just one posthumous book, Rimas (1871).  The poems are from manuscript, so an editor can arrange them as he likes.  In the Collected Poems I am reading, a sort of story is formed in which poetry is replaced by (or turns into?) a woman who, sadly, dies, allowing the poet a full range of passionate poetic moods.

I find it hard not to mock, gently, lightly, lovingly, such a purely Romantic artist.  Another kind of reader, perhaps younger, may well take him more seriously.  He and I both take Bécquer’s vowels seriously (I am switching to Cohen’s prose translation):

Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y otra vez con el ala a sus cristales
     jugando llamarán;   

The black swallows will return to hang their nests on your balcony, and once more, as they sport, to knock with their wings against its window-panes,

pero aquellas que el vuelo refrenaban
tu hermosura y mi dicha al contemplar,
aquellas que aprendieron nuestros nombres…
    ésas… ¡no volverán!

but those that stopped their flight to observe your beauty and my good fortune, those who learnt our names…  they…  will not return!

Two more stanzas follow with similar “Something (honeysuckles, words of love) will return, but the ones who were here when we were happy will not return."  The rhythm is that of a song, perhaps a flamenco; I in fact have a tune in mind and if you were here I could sing it for you.  Thus if “golondrinas” and “colgar” and “cristales” and “llamarán” do not rhyme, the singer can stretch the “a” sound as if they do.  I also recommend that the singer employ a dramatic pause (and, if dressed appropriately, a dramatic pose) in the middle of that last line – “ésas [pause, longing gaze into the distance, that flounce of the skirts the flamenco singers do] ¡no volverán!”

It is just a question of finding the right tune.


  1. As always, I am humbled by the range of your reading. From what I know of poetry it was a much more vibrant genre in the 19th century than it has been in my lifetime. But it tended towards the sentimental, didn't it? From your examples here, the Spanish was much better, certainly more musical. Is the translator a scholar or a poet, I wonder.

  2. Congrats on bumping Bécquer back down the reading list, Tom, or as they say in the nicer parts of the blogosphere, "Thank you for your honest review." Self LOL on that one! Good to see the Spanish and the English side by side here, though, and thanks for writing about a guy I know little about except by reputation.

  3. I do think you are right, C.B., that poetry was more vibrant in the 19th century, and for a while into the 20th, before the novel displaced it or Modernism strangled it or whatever happened. Poetry had a bigger audience, at least - much bigger.

    As for sentimental, yes and no. I will undo that impression when I take a look at Rubén Darío.

    The verse translator is a poet, the prose translator an unusual man of letters who did lots of Penguin Classics translations. Their task is hopeless, desperate, because
    Bécquer gets pretty close to pure poetry. It took some playing around to figure out how to read him, or really to hear him.

    I'm glad to hear some appreciation for the side-by-side translation. The English alone gives no sense at all of Bécquer's stature or achievement. But what must Keats sound like in plain Spanish?

  4. As a long time admirer of Bécquer (I even wrote a book with him as protagonis)thank you for bringing his poetry to an American audience.
    I agree that translation does not work with poetry. You can translate the words but not its music.
    You may like to hear another of Bécquer´s poems put to music to a popular Andalousian song.

  5. Thanks for those links - the song is quite good. And how interesting to read about your book.

    I am a champion of poetry in translation, and have read a lot of first-rate translated poetry, some great, great stuff, but Bécquer best features are unfortunately the hardest part of poetry to translate.

    I hope you enjoy - heck, I hope it is comprehensible - today's post in which I turn more to the weird side of Bécquer, which fortunately is easier to catch in translation than his music.